The contrast brought by distance.
After two fabulous weeks trundling down the Black Sea coast it was time to head in land towards Bucharest, and hopefully to a man who can fix the water pump.
The coast doesn’t give a real picture of the country, as we were to find out almost immediately. In the 90s the Germans and Russians were the first to recognise the potential of the coast and both swooped in to buy up tracts of land.
The countryside is different. Very different.
First up we passed the major city of Burgas.
The road around it passes more tower blocks than most people will see in their whole lives. The Soviets were obsessed with urban systems and forced the abandonment of villages, dragging people into the towns where providing services was much cheaper.
The positive end result of this was that with the fall of communism most people were given the flat that they lived in, they couldn’t possibly afford to buy them. Though can you imagine a tower block part owned by each of its several hundred flats? Can you imagine an uninsulated concrete box in freezing winter, in baking hot summer?
Burgas has a beautiful sea front park, but that wasn’t for us on this trip.
After Burgas we left the main Sofia road and crossed country on the roads Bulgaria is famous for. Patches hold patches together and the experience is better suited to a Land Rover than a Lotus. The roads are bad, but if you’ve driven in Southern Italy, or Greece you’ll have seen it all before. Most interesting are the bits where there has been minor subsidence, but not enough to break the road, resulting in deep dips that leave your stomach in free fall and the van attempting flight.
It was the villages that brought the culture shock.
The degree of poverty smacks you in the face.
Most property is built of a brick that degrades quickly as a result of the extreme temperature range. It resembles early Tudor brick of a UK country mansion. The mortar holding the bricks degrades too. The result is that every house looks ready to be condemned – but they have to last for decades yet.
Softer state services such as hedge and grass cutting have long been abandoned in the villages with the result that everything is overgrown and appears to be returning to the soil. Two lane roads have a narrow passage between hedges gone wild.
All that is contrasted by the riot of colour from most gardens where vegetables grow among dahlias, hollyhocks and sunflowers.
At a glance it can feel off putting and more than a little scary. But stop and say hello to people and your impression soon changes. Behind gruff expressions there are beaming smiles and an exchange of hard to grasp greetings.
At Tamarino we stayed on a couple’s fledgling permaculture small holding. Anton and Mano bought their three hectare plot five years ago – it had lain abandoned for fifteen years previously. After five years the house is still barely habitable, and they have to head south to avoid the punishingly cold winters (it dropped to -25 here last winter).
Cooking and eating happens outside and most of their time is spent working their plot.
I can’t imagine many Brits would get to the house before turning away, even having found it many might not stop. We’re not used to how derelict things are here and we’re likely to misinterpret it.
We did stop and we’re so glad.
We ate chickpea and spinach dahl in the garden as the orange moon climbed through the towering sunflowers and trees. Gradually the symphony of chirpy creatures fell quiet. Mathilde, their French volunteer, ate with us and shared her views of this fascinating place. She’s hitchhiking to Asia and working in places such as this on her route – good on her, I wish more young folk had the spirit and bravery she shows.
We’ll only be in Bulgaria for a short time, but I suspect we’ll be back for more. Unlike many countries this place isn’t changing fast. The average wage is just 550 euros a month, the pension is less than 200, and the youth are leaving too fast to top up the state coffers.
At the shop come bar come post office the owner told me that there are six English families in the little village – outsiders are probably the only hope of keeping places alive. Anyone with a small investment could buy and live here for very little, but with a 65 degree temperature range I’m not sure that I’m hardy enough.
Anton hopes to build a straw bale house for them. That level of insulation should provide a sustainable property that’s cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and probably the most comfortable house for miles – they’ll have a lot of visitors.
We drive west, then north, for mile after mile of dry cereal fields and seed crops. A few weeks back the sunflowers were bright, positive and upstanding. Turning through the day in worship of their god. Today the scorched ranks turn their heads no more, like blackened drone soldiers returning from some apocalyptic encounter their dry heads hang low.
After the rose water town of Kazanlak we approached the mountains where, from the very first incline, everything changed.
This is the Shipka Pass. In 1877 a Russian and Bulgarian force defeated the massively superior Ottomans for control of the pass. It’s the most celebrated battle through the land and the many monuments start here. This link will take you to the site for the Buzludzha Monument which has information on this and other key Soviet memorials built during its era.
For us Buzludzha had been a goal since setting out from home and it didn’t let us down. The crazy concrete UFO with its sabre like tower is visible at least twenty miles away. The sabre is 70m tall and stands at the top of a 1440m mountain rising straight from the plains. The size of this building and many of their monuments is hard to conceive without a person in a photo to give it scale.
The Buz was only completed in 1981, but already it is in a poor state. With the fall of communism the new leaders attacked this monument to their predecessors and left it open to the ravages of the extreme weather, and the looting of the very people who had contributed money and labour to its building only a few years before.
There’s a campaign to restore it, I hope it’s successful, but care will be needed to avoid seeming to glorify the most recent oppressors of this country that has been so often the subject of other nations.
There’s nothing natural about the building, but there’s plenty of natural beauty. When I went to take Polly for her pre-bed pee we had the eerie experience of being surrounded by 40 or more wild horses, many with foals. They didn’t trouble us, but they did leave a lasting impression gracefully gliding through the gloaming.
Shipka Memorial Church.
Not wishing to offend anyone memorials are often dedicated to many events, with a key one taking the prize position. The memorial church was completed just 25 years after the 1877 battle with Russian and Bulgarian funds. In a landscape that’s often dreary, and with little glitter the church stands out all the more.
After the church the pass winds up and up passing many more Soviet style works on the way before the crowning glory of the Freedom Monument that was completed in 1934 and so is in a more classical style that we’d recognise from elsewhere.
Soviet art followed a prescribed style from the founding of Soviet Russia right through the to end of the Soviet Union over 60 years later. I’ve always been drawn to its strong heroic lines, the consistent use of red and the sheer scale of the works.
After the relatively modern monuments of the Shipka Pass we dropped through the wood working towns in the valley on the way to the former seat of the tsars at Veliko Tarnovo.
Suddenly we were in a tourist hub with coach loads of English, American and even Australian visitors. There are restaurants all over, casinos, night clubs, yet still in a rather shabby Bulgarian style.
The city was built on a huge meander of the Yantra River. Houses appear to tumble over each other on the steep sides of the gorge. It could almost be Italian, but that it’s too scruffy, and lacking flowers.
There are a few grand buildings including the amazing Veliko Tarnovo Hotel. An exploration of the power of concrete, it’s akin to London’s Barbican where Min and I lived for a while. The hotel is still in use, but I suspect it’s a mere shadow of its former glory.
Tsarevets Fortress dominates the town and it’s worth the modest entry fee just for the views. There are impressive remains of the fortresses that have stood here since c.7th. It includes some 400 houses, many churches and a palace. All are in ruins except the church at the peak which is wonderfully decorated with Soviet era murals inside.
Billed as Bulgaria’s only elegant city, Ruse certainly is different to everything else we’ve seen.
Wide avenues lead to the central monuments and fountains.
Street cafes are full of people living the cosmopolitan life.
Surprisingly the city seems to turn its back on the Danube that flows at its feet, bordering with Romania.
There’s probably a lot more to see here than the little we passed in a couple of hours, but when the sun’s beating down, and there’s a long hard drive still to do it’s difficult to make the most of a place.
Soon we’d paid our toll and we were crossing the Danube out of this interesting country.
Although Bulgaria feels like it is having a bad time that won’t end for many years it remains an interesting country.
The coast offers absolute jewels. Empty beaches and cliffs down dirt roads and away from the resorts.
Inland the poverty is obvious and even the cities like Ruse and Veliko Tarnovo show that life here is very different to other countries we’ve visited.
I would like to have spent more time talking with people – plenty were up for conversation, but my lack of language was a barrier.
The roads are as bad as people tell you, but no worse than much of Greece or Italy, and the driving was generally calm. You can go for miles without seeing another car.
I’m sure we’ll be back.
This was a week of extreme contrast, and next week will bring more. Bucharest is a gem, but I’ll save it for its our post next Saturday.
This isn’t just a drinks picture from our last night on the coast. This picture says so much about my Minty. She’d been to the bar during the day, established that they had no food offering, not even snacks. So Minty brought her own. Good girl!